Flynn Ross, University of Southern Maine.
Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on April 5, 2016.
As someone who educates other teachers, I’ve worked in Maine schools where some lessons are taught in hallways, stair landings, and book rooms because there are no other spaces — where the walls between classrooms are so thin that students can hear the next class, sometimes louder than their own. There are schools with patterns of teacher illness and higher rates of student asthma as older buildings leak and develop mold and other asthma triggers.
Research tells us that the quality of a school building influences the quality of the education, particularly when it comes to meeting minimal safety and health requirements. There are many factors that contribute to this, including lighting, technology, class size and the ability for students to hear the lesson. Air quality, room temperature and other health-related factors influence absenteeism among both students and teachers. Several research reports found that students who attended school in buildings in poor condition had achievement scores that were 6-11 percent lower than students whose schools were in good or excellent quality, even when controlling for other factors such as rates of poverty. And having pleasant, healthy environments helps to attract and retain good teachers.
Maine ranked 49th in state per pupil expenditure on school facilities, according to a 2010 report. However, it ranked 6th in the nation when it comes to the share of spending on school facilities funded by the state — Augusta covers 84 percent of the costs and local communities spend 12 percent.
A recent report found that, nationally, the US needs about $145 billion a year but is spending $99 billion for building maintenance, operations, capital constructions, and new facilities to ensure modern health and safety standards in schools. Maine’s public schools are clearly doing much better than those in other states that have made headlines, such as Detroit, Michigan where teachers organized a shutdown earlier this year by calling in sick. Across the country, the “savage inequalities” between schools in communities of poverty and schools in communities of wealth that Jonathan Kozol wrote about in 1991 have only gotten worse. But Maine has done better with our more equitable state funding of school buildings.
Two years ago, my daughter had music class while sitting on the floor of a corner of the cafeteria while the kitchen noises of lunch preparation clanged through her lesson. Due to a lack of space, the music room was being used for a general classroom. Art was moved out of its classroom to a cart that the teacher pushes around different classrooms. That class was confined to only colored pencils and markers, because there was no cleanup or storage space for any projects that weren’t completed in one class session.
So parents organized and insisted on the installation of portable classrooms that took four months to secure but at least the classes we as taxpayers were paying for could take place with a chance for student learning.
Teachers and students at Portland’s Hall Elementary School have been resilient. The school had an electrical fire in fall 2012 that required teachers and students to move into classrooms downtown on a temporary basis. The community rallied with an art project to make the outside of the building more welcoming and attractive. The classrooms had buckets for leaky roofs and air quality was a concern. When the school received a failing grade on the state student achievement rating system that same year, the community rallied to rebrand “F for Fabulous.”
The Portland City Council finally appointed a building committee that made several presentations following debates about whether to consolidate some of Portland’s nine elementary schools or build a new building. Portland voters will get to vote today to approve $29.7 million to build a new building.
It is a long process to get state funding for a new school building through the Major Capital School Construction projects system. It requires enrollment projections and prioritizing projects based on documented health and safety issues. There is more demand in the state than there are available funds. As a parent in Westbrook, I’m quite aware of this system. The town received state funding for the $34 million dollar middle school building in 2010. That means it’s not eligible for state funding for elementary school building projects in the near future. With projected enrollment growth of 20 percent by 2023-2024, Westbrook has been adding portable classrooms to all three of its elementary schools.
The teaching and learning professions do have research with international agreement on what promotes learning. But it takes the investment and commitment of local communities to make possible what we know is best for students.
Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.